One of my first meetings in Israel was with the Palestinian Human Rights Activist and political commentator Bassem Eid. He began his career working with the watchdog group B’Tselem, and worked as a researcher documenting violations by the Israeli army in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 1996, he created a Palestinian human rights organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Eid was once arrested for his activism by Yasser Arafat, and was released after 25 hours, when U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, intervened. Today he is a vocal critic of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, a political commentator, and a harsh critic of the BDS or “Boycott Divest and Sanction” movement.
Our conversation began with a discussion of the current wave of violence that started with stabbings by young Palestinians in October. He was disturbed not only by the violence, but by the self-destruction it was causing to Palestinians themselves. “I just heard some statistics about how the Palestinian economy has been affected since the first of October. Billions of dollars. Imagine that the Palestinians have lost billions of dollars in the past four months. Take for example, Christmas. On Christmas, Bethlehem was totally empty. Not one room was booked. Imagine how much money you are losing, as a nation, as an authority, as a country on its way to being established.” Tensions in Bethlehem had resulted in tourists avoiding the city recognized as where Jesus was born, and all this did was hurt the Palestinian economy.
This turned to the broader concern over what these attacks accomplish. “Sometimes I get very nervous, what we are going to achieve if we stab another 1000 Jews, what are we going to achieve if another 2,000 Palestinians are going to be killed? We know exactly what happened during the summer war in 2014 in Gaza. What did we achieve in that?” Since the first of October, 173 Palestinians are dead, and another 31 Jews.
I asked is this a third intifada? Bassem insisted that it wasn’t. It wasn’t organized, but was almost spontaneous, or emergent behavior of your people who appear to be motivated by their own economic despair rather than by organized political resistance. He spoke about a lawyer’s interviews with some of the accused girls who are imprisoned in the Nizhan prison in Ramla for some of the attacks. “When she talked to them about the motivation of their actions. Not one of them mentioned Israeli aggression or oppression.” Instead, the girl’s actions appeared to be motivated by family disputes. “In one case, their family wanted them to get married to someone they didn’t like, the other fell in love with a guy, whothe family rejected..”
In another case, where two girls stabbed a 70 year old man on the street, Bassem asked,
What was the motivation? The teenagers used to have a joint school breakfast, and in that morning when she asked her mom for 20 shekels to participate in the joint breakfast, the mother said she only had 2 shekels. When the girl left her home, she found her friend, and it looks like the the friend had the same problem. They felt so ashamed to go to the class without having money to participate in the joint breakfast, then they decided to come to Jerusalem, I don’t know how they came to Jerusalem. But they took the light rail and got out at Davidka station and stabbed a man with a pair of scissors. The guy they stabbed was a Palestinian. They thought he was a Jew.
The telling thing here is the explicit lack of a political motivation, but instead economic despair that drove the girls to violence. Yet, Bassem also pointed out that when his lawyer friend reported the interview on Palestinian tv, she told a very different story, claiming that they acted not because of personal reasons, but instead “the motivation was Israeli aggression.This is how things are working now. She knew that the girls were motivated by personal reasons, but when she went public she said it was motivated by Israeli aggression.”
Criticizing the Palestinian Authority
I asked why would she change her story? We spoke about how difficult it is to criticize the Palestinian Authority, and the risks that democratic advocates face. Bassem spoke about a Palestinian professor who was arrested in Nablus the prior week for criticizing the government.
I don’t like the professor’s ideology and his politics. He became so extremist, that he tried to criticize without trying to present any kind of solution, but in the meantime, I said this is very healthy. We need people like that to criticize us, to criticize the Israelis, to criticize the international community. Of course we need it. I remember this professor from 1997 when someone from the security force shot him in his knees in the street. He suffered a lot. But arresting him doesn’t solve the problem. Just as by stabbing Jews, we are not going to solve the problem, just as shooting anther rocket from Gaza will not solve the problem, What’s really going on? In my opinion, the major tragedy of the Palestinian people is their own leadership, rather than the occupation. The real problem is a lack of leadership.
On Mahmoud Abbas
Bassem had harsh words for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “He is the kind of president who is just waiting for his people to die and be declared as martyrs. I haven’t seen, in the last four months, even one statement where Abbas has tried to calm the situation, or tried to advise his people that you are leading us to nowhere. By stabbing Jews, that will never liberate the Palestinians; by stabbing Jews that will never create the Palestinian state. By stabbing Jews, that will never give us any liberty or independence.” Abbas’ failure to call for non-violence has the opposite result.
“By not discouraging the stabbings, he is encouraging it. He is paying money to these people. He is meeting with them. He is paying money for what he calls ‘the martyrs,’to their families. He is paying money to the families. Why are the families are running to Ramallah, to meet with him? To get the checks. This is how he succeeds in buying his popularity. He is buying it by money rather than by any other political strategy. And that is exactly what he learned from Arafat. Arafat did the same, but Arafat gave more money than Abbas, because there was more money coming to the PLO.” \
Abbas’ failure to speak out against violence has created distrust among Israelis that the Palestinians want to find a peaceful solution.He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject just a few months ago.
Living under a coma… and “lovers of death instead of life”
Eid then used the metaphor of “living under a coma” to describe the state of mind in Palestine today. It is as if “no one is trying to wake up and even see what is really going on around them. What has really happened here? Why are people so blind to their own situation? This gives me a very very bad feeling about our political future. If you are looking today to what is surrounding us, I think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the safest place in the Middle East today. ISIS is in Syria, even in Jordan, even in Gaza. This is what makes Abbas so popular right now. He appears to be a moderate, even though he refuses to speak out against acts of terror.”
But the failure to speak out against the violence ponts to an even bigger problem. Somehow in the past several months, the Palestinians have become “lovers of death rather than life. I don’t ever remember, since 1967, how we the Palestinians, have come to love death rather than life. It reminds me of an Israeli advertisement when they put out a boy, shouting “I am dying to life! I am dying for life!” We the Palestinians today, are shouting, we are dying for death! That makes me sad. How have we shifted from life-lovers to death lovers?”
Bassem’s explanation turned philosophical.
What is really happening here? I don’t think that for any kind of aggression or oppression, I have to kill myself. To come and stab. This is a suicide. It is very clear in Islam, not to commit suicide. It is very clear. God said it. So, with the such kind of the extremists who are saying that the suicide is a part of jihadism, that this is what God is commanding us to do. Which God are you talking about? Which God said it? The God of Hamas? or The God of Hezbollah? The God of the Shia? or the Sunni? It looks like we have several Gods here. The God in Saudi is different than the God in Jordan, different from the God in Syria, different from the God in Libya. So, that’s in my opinion, one of the major problems, you know, sometimes they said, that if the Israeli occupation will end, all of the problems of the world would be solved. Who told you that? That is rubbish. I don’t believe that… I used to say all the time, that in my opinion, and talking with the people in Refugee camps, in the cities in the West Bank, in my opinion, the majority of Palestinians these days are people looking for dignity rather than identity. I have no problem wherever I am going saying “I am a Palestinian. People recognize me. They know where I am from.
Dignity comes from economic prosperity, which he sees as the primary goal of the majority of the Palestinian people. They are “a people seeking a better economic future. And this is why I am always trying to encourage the Israeli government, that you should increase the number of working permits inside Israel.” If there is more cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, economic prosperity can only improve. “But the opposite, today’s politics, is keeping us far away from each other. In my opinion, the biggest mistake of the international community is that they invest more in politics rather than in the economy. We are at a time when we need to start building a strong economic prosperity for both sides.”
BDS and Economic Prosperity
Our conversation ended with a discussion of the BDS or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement. Will a boycott of Israel help the cause of economic prosperity in Palestine? Bassem strongly believes that an actual boycott of Israel would devastate the Palestinian economy. He spoke first about the issue of the expansion of settlements.
When the international community talks about the settlements as the obstacle of peace, I think they forget how important the existing settlements are to the Palestinian economy. Right now, we have 25,000 Palestinian workers who are entering into the settlements to go to work every day, plus another 92,000 workers who are entering to work inside Israel.” What would happen if those workers were unable to work in the settlements, or to work within Israel? If that were to happen, “what will happen to us? We will starve tomorrow morning. And no one will pay attention to us.
Recounting some of the recent terror attacks, Bassem described Israeli discussions about preventing Palestinian workers from entering the settlements. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) actually went to the government and said “you couldn’t stop letting Palestinians work in the settlements. That will only escalate the situation.”
Compare this to the recent events in Ramallah, when three men stabbed a border police woman. “When the workers of Kabatia went to go to the check point to go to work, , all of their work permits were taken away. Imagine the scandal that will create inside Kabatia, For 3 terrorists, we will punish 10,000 workers? Imagine that. And of course, the Palestinian Authority can’t produce one job right now.” This plays right into his argument against the BDS movement.
“The BDS is calling for a boycott of Israel. But they never provide any alternatives to improve the lives of Palestinians. To continue obtaining medical insurance for our children. I am so happy that haven’t seen any effect, for the BDS, except with what happened with Sodastream. I think that the Palestinians are aware that a boycott will be counter-productive. I haven’t seen the Palestinian leadership say ‘Boycott Israel,’ because that will really dismantle the Palestinian authority. BDS is symbolism. What we need is investment and economic prosperity. That can’t come from BDS.”
My time with Bassem Eid was extremely enlightening, and covered much more than I have written here. The issues are complex. His focus wasn’t on abuses by Israel, but on the problems within Palestine itself, and how those problems serve as a stumbling block towards advancing a two state solution. This is not to excuse Israel for its responsibilities. Indeed, the relationship between Israel and Palestine is one in which the Israelis hold all the political power, it is not a level playing field. But for things to move forward, it is essential to find both new leadership in Palestine, and take steps to improve the economic situation of the average Palestinian. The conditions have to be present for a Palestinian democracy if a two solution can ever succeed. For Bassem Eid, economic prosperity and growth is the essential first step.